The craft culture in Grand Rapids is so strong it has convinced a soda distribution company to make its own soda.
Following more than 45 years of distributing draft systems and fountain syrups, BBC Distributing saw an opportunity with an ownership change five years ago. First, the company began working with clients on providing a variety of compostable products.
“That’s really our niche, to be a local-first company that can customize programs for each client,” said Justin Ahearne, a BBC sales consultant. “We wanted to parlay our base product line and build a compostable product line and take it beyond the products and build programs that service each individual customer.”
Included among the clients were some of the region’s craft breweries, which led the distribution company to its conclusion: something was missing on the soda scene in West Michigan.
BBC Distributing partnered with a bottling plant in northern Michigan to mix and bottle Brix Soda, a Grand Rapids-owned and distributed soft drink, Ahearne said. The soda began showing up in local stores a little more than a year ago.
Brix Soda is a pure cane sugar soda with six bottled flavors and 12 draft flavors, including Orange Cream Soda, Black Cherry, Root Beer, Pomegranate Lemonade and Jamaican Ginger Beer.
Ahearne said the company worked with several retailers to devise special flavors, including some that can be utilized in making cocktails, such as the ginger beer.
“We knew we needed to be craft and have some unique flavors, and it needed to appeal to that brewery scene,” Ahearne said. “We try to have craft-like flavors that are family friendly, just like a lot of these breweries.”
Several draft flavors also are similar to larger brands, such as Sprite and Mountain Dew, to help bars and restaurants satisfy consumer requests. Early Brix Soda customers include Slows Bar BQ, Cedar Springs Brewing Co., Reserve, Horrock’s Market, D. Schuler’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Kingma’s Market and the Downtown Market.
Aside from the local draw, Ahearne said Brix Soda understands the current trend of consumers drinking less sugar-based drinks. He said he avoids debates on whether cane sugar sodas are a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup soft drinks, as there is a limit to the amount of sugar a person should consume anyway, despite various studies finding cane sugar to be healthier.
BBC Distributing is working on additional water and zero-calorie drinks with its main soda partner, Pepsi-Cola.
If a consumer is going to drink a soda, however, Ahearne said he believes they’re starting to prefer a local option.
Soda production is completed in northern Michigan, as the local facilities don’t have the equipment to produce it, Ahearne said. The company is determining the next investments that need to be made to help continue controlled growth of the brand.
“It’s hard when we know it’s a great product and have had a lot of interest in it,” he said. “If we’re branded and believe in small local organizations and support local, but mass produce something that turns into the next Jones Soda, our messages don’t align.
“We need to make sure we grow it in the right direction.”
Unlike beer, soda can be mixed as ordered, Ahearne said. Brix Soda uses “par levels” and tracks the usage by customers and can compare the amount of product retailers had been purchasing from other soda distributors to when they switch to Brix. Together, those par levels can help determine the quantity of liquid in each batch of Brix Soda.
“The pop world is a lot quicker in that sense,” Ahearne said. “We don’t have to wait for anything to ferment. We have an advantage there.”
With the dozen flavors Brix Soda offers, Ahearne said the product line is solid and rolling it out more aggressively is next on the agenda, especially in the retail categories so consumers can buy bottles directly to have at home in their refrigerators.
The company initially is starting with limited distribution in Michigan, but Ahearne said just as Founders Brewing Co. and New Holland Brewing Co. started as small West Michigan breweries, Brix Soda won’t stay small if consumers demand more.
“It’s all a balancing act as you continue to grow, and you adjust to the market,” he said. “Through slow growth and maturity (Founders and New Holland) made it to where they are now. We’re not going to stop Brix from going in that direction, but we’re not going to force it, either.
“Our goal right now is to provide an alternative local flavor.”